Madison Falls Path and Picnic

By Bret Wirta-The Incidental Explorer

Distance: Few hundred yards – Time out: Pretty short

Degree of Difficulty: 0 – Pet Friendly: Yes

June 11th 2012.

Plenty of places to picnic

Plenty of places to picnic

If you are looking for an outing that combines a wheelchair access path, picnic area and a beautiful waterfall then Madison Falls in Olympic National Park is hard to beat. My elderly Mom was visiting us and she doesn’t walk much so this path was perfect. We began our outing with a picnic at the trailhead. There were plenty of tables in the green meadow. The Elwha River tumbled just across the road from us. My Mom, my daughter, her boyfriend and I enjoyed our repast in the sunshine.

The path to the falls is paved and though steeper in places then the ADA ramps at our hotel, Olympic National Park lists the path as wheel chair accessible. It was a warm and sunny day but was cool under the leafy canopy. Hardwoods ringed the edge of the field which gave way to firs and cedars as we walked closer to the falls.


Time has brought many changes to this spot. According to the Olympic Historic Resource Study by Gail H. E. Evans, “Around 1889, Warriner Smith built a cabin in the rugged, heavily forested slopes on the east side of the Elwha River near the mouth of Madison Creek.”

One of the early organized journeys into the interior of the Olympic Mountains, The Press Expedition, visited Smith’s cabin in that same year. Later decades brought more homesteading, mining and even lodging to accommodate guests.

When I asked if there was any early human history at Madison Falls, such as Paleolithic sites, my friend Kim, archeologist at Olympic National Park said:

“No, there aren’t any Paleolithic sites near Madison falls. There is only one site on the Peninsula that could potentially be as old as Paleolithic – and that’s the Manis Mastodon site in Sequim (roughly 12,000 years old). All other sites around here are from the Holocene. (As a side note, archaeologists around here typically don’t use the terms Paleo/Meso/Neolithic because that terminology usually, not always, refers to “Old World” archaeology.) Radio carbon dating sites away from the coast is always a little challenging for us. Our forest soils typically don’t help preserve the organic materials left by the former inhabitants that we need to radio carbon date. At coastal sites this material is abundant and site ages generally range from 2000 to 150 years Before Present (BP). Thanks to the Elwha Restoration Project we have been fortunate enough to get a few new dates which have significantly increased the depth of ages on inland sites in the Elwha Valley. Sites in the valley range from 8,500 to 500 years BP.”

Paved path

Paved path

Time moves slowly but incessantly. All that history and activity is gone now. The only building we could see was the National Park Service toilet at the parking lot.

The trail up to the falls was paved and easy, only a few hundred yards or so. Somebody had thoughtfully placed a bench to sit and rest half way up the path. My Mom walked slowly. I was by her side. It’s difficult to watch your parent, once so energetic, grow old. At the waterfall we sat down and looked at the creek plummeting fifty feet over the cliff in front of us. The mist felt cool and soothing and all around us was green. We sat there for a long time. My Mom thought it was a beautiful.

A pretty waterfall

A pretty waterfall

To get to Madison Falls at the entrance of Olympic National Park from the Quality Inn and Suites, Sequim:

  • Head west on Highway 101 past Port Angeles – drive 24 miles.
  • Turn left at Elwha River Entrance to Olympic National Park
  • The Madison Falls Trailhead will be on your left before the entrance to the park.

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